Apple Podcast Analytics launches, marking an industry turning point

The awaited podcast analytics suite from Apple has arrived in beta. Whatever its shortfalls in the minds of some industry observers, and however ambivalent some podcast publishers might be about the intrusion of new data, Apple’s reporting of podcast consumption will sharply influence the shape, growth and revenue prospects of the most important new audio category in the last five years.

The Importance

Apple dominates podcast distribution — perhaps inadvertently. The name “podcast” did not come from Apple, but did derive from the Apple iPod, which was the primary listening device when downloadable audio files became a thing. Podcasts were added to the iTunes Store alongside music, at a time when listenership was lower and the library of shows was much smaller. In 2006, only 11% of the U.S. 12+ population had ever listened to a podcast.

At the end of 2017 podcast producers and networks are eyeing predictions of a $500-million business by 2020. But as an advertising-powered media category, any big growth of podcasting will depend on the support of big advertisers. Those are the national brands which plan cross-category campaigns informed by laser-sharp audience metrics. Podcasting is a cottage industry when it comes to audience analytics, hobbled by lack of third-party measurement that agencies and advertisers understand and trust.

As podcasting struggles to mature on the business side, even as it produces some glorious audio for consumers, Apple distributes about 65% of podcast listens. There are two problems. First, that “listens” aren’t exactly measured; instead, the governing metric is downloads, the legacy of podcasting’s musty past when listeners didn’t have the bandwidth to stream podcasts like music is streamed today. A download is unambiguously measured, so that metric is solid. But it’s also dumb — which is to say, uninformative about what happens to the show after it is downloaded.

That leads into the second problem: Apple has not fed back more informative metrics about what happens to those downloads — completion rates, abandonment points, commercial impressions, and other data that quantify the value of a program to advertisers.

Until now.

Are Apple Analytics All That?

The launch today is just as Apple described if would be at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June. The company said that the planned analytics would not drill down to individual usage, but to aggregations of device usage. Two points about that:

  • “Device” does not convey any information about a person. By comparison, programmatic advertising in other categories gives advertisers smart, contextualized impressions at the individual level.
  • “Aggregated” data means even the devices are not individualized. Screenshots published by TechCrunch indicate that Apple Podcast Analytics indicate broad information points about how episodes are consumed.

So it’s Apple’s  dominant distribution power that makes this release important, more than data intelligence. The data is simple and lumpy compared to streaming music, video, and web display advertising — categories which, in a certain view, are podcasting’s competition for big brand dollars.

What’s In It?

Apple Podcast Analytics measures per-episode consumption of podcast episodes that are requested through the Apple Podcasts iOS app, and through iTunes. More on that distribution range below.

From what we can see today, Apple is providing four main metrics:

  • Number of devices that have requested the podcast episode
  • Total time listened across all devices
  • Time per device — important because it averages to a percentage of any episode that is actually heard
  • Average consumption: this is the amount of the episode heard on average, expressed as a percentage

These analytics were released within iOS 11, and deliver results for podcast episodes requested by mobile devices running that version of iOS, not earlier versions. That shrinks the amount of usage that can be measured. According to Apple, only 59% of Apple mobile devices are running iOS 11. So the distribution footprint for Apple Podcast Analytics is narrowed from the overall 65% estimated Apple distribution of podcasts. James Cridland’s Podnews notes that when Apple’s HomePod smart speaker is released (it’s behind schedule and missing the holiday boat), it could be another device type measured by Apple Podcast Analytics.

Potential Impact

Advertisers and agency buyers will be interested in Apple Podcast Analytics, while wishing they were more granular. the product represents a long-awaited view into Apple’s black box (now gray box) of podcast listening measurement.

On the publisher side, Apple’s release could be disruptive. With Apple metrics hidden from view, podcast producers, content networks, and distributors have developed their own metrics, and their own analytics story for advertisers. That fragmentation doesn’t help lift the industry as a whole, but it has led to pockets of success at the network, platform, and producer levels. Apple’s release of analytics could be disruptive in some cases, possibly forcing a revision of existing rationales for buying advertising, or pricing adjustments.

Platform-specific measurement is usually more revealing than what Apple is releasing. A podcast hosting company which services direct requests for episodes (unlike Apple, which merely services a user request by pulling the episode from the hosting company) can, in many cases, track how people listen to that episode. That information is sometimes supplemented by commissioned or in-house research to understand how consumers listen to the episodes they request. Many factors (such as “Follow” and”Subscribe” features which can invoke auto-downloading of every episode) contribute to unique and confusing listening measurement challenges.

Overall, the net effect of Apple’s decision to reveal a degree of the company’s intelligence about podcast consumer behavior will probably be helpful, lifting the industry’s understanding of itself, and giving a better understanding to advertisers too. It is a mile marker on the path toward a truly intelligent, standard listening metric (as in streaming music) that quantifies exactly what’s happening to every file and every advertisement in the file.

Work is progressing along that line. NPR’s Remote Audio Data (RAD) initiative inserts feedback triggers in podcast episodes that can send information back to the host, no matter how and where the file was requested. Podcast host and technology firm ART19 has developed an API (Application Programming Interface) as a smarter alternative to RSS (Real Simple Syndication), the traditional method of distributing podcasts across many apps like Apple Podcasts.

The business future of podcasting lies in better understanding of how consumers listen. What imperative progresses on a few fronts, Apple’s release of Podcast Analytics is an important step for Apple. It is not a “final mile” step by a long shot. It shows that Apple is interested, but not a committed player in the business of podcasting. It is enough, though, to set up 2018 in a new light, with new information and new energy.

NOTE: Mark your calendar for March 22, New York City. The RAIN Podcast Business Summit, presented by NPR.

Brad Hill